Last year we decided to run a series of social media posts highlighting our tutors’ “5 favourites from AHA“. We asked them for their favourite Italian city, Italian dish, piece of art, piece of architecture and one of their most memorable AHA moments. Unsurprisingly, they found it hard to choose but we finally pinned them all down.
Piece of architecture: Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro fontane (San Carlino), Rome
Memorable AHA moment: A perfect moment – I no longer wear my father’s Seamaster Omega watch. We were settling down to lunch in Rome with 18 students and 4 tutors, and I looked around the table taking in the antipasto, the wisteria, water and wine. As I listened to the happy hubbub of conversation peppered with passing Vespas on the cobbled streets, noticed that my watch had stopped at 1 o’clock. It has never worked since and I have not tried to repair it because I realised: that was as good as it gets.
Piece of art: I am constantly amazed and astonished by Caravaggio’s Conversion of St Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome
Piece of architecture: Bramante’s Tempietto small but perfectly formed. When I’m really rich I’ll have a replica built in the grounds as a study. As yet I have no “grounds” but that’s just a minor inconvenience.
Memorable AHA moment: walking into the Baptistery in Pisa to see the sun streaming through the windows and into Nicola Pisano’s pulpit. The marble around the crucified Christ is carved so thin that it glowed like the gold leaf on a medieval painting, an almost miraculous experience that I’m sure I will never see again.
You can follow Richard on Twitter for a wonderfully witty view of the world.
Italian city: Rome, closely followed by the ever-classy Verona
Italian dish: the carbonara at Da Enzo’s near Santa Cecilia in Rome!!!! To die for…
Piece of art: Pontormo’s Deposition and Michelangelo’s Bacchus
Piece of architecture: San Paolo Fuori le Mura in Rome. I remember walking in this Basilica for the first time and my mouth was agape for at least five minutes!
Memorable AHA moment: Oh gosh – so many! If I had to choose one, it would probably be the feeling I had when we jumped on the first train of the day back to Venice from Verona having spent the evening watching the most amazing performance of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette in the Arena followed by running through the marbled streets re-enacting Shakespeare. I felt complete.
To take a view of these glorious works of art yourself, or slurp some mouth-watering carbonara, make sure to get yourself on the next trip!
If ever a city was primed for the stereotypical ‘city break’, it was Seville. Packed with a perfect cocktail of culture, sun (essential), and great food, it is walk-able, explore-able and exudes a warm comfort and curiosity from its sandy Moorish architecture. From a couple of visits, here is a haphazard checklist of what to do, see, taste and take note of in 24 hours in the city…
1. Don’t go in summer
The hardest thing to organise about a trip to Seville the temperature. Believe it or not, summer is ‘low season’. If you manage to get sunburnt in Cornwall (as I do) – don’t attempt to disprove this. September through to April is prime time to visit – when I visited in January, it was 23 degrees Celsius.
2. Don’t take a map
Seville’s winding medieval streets are sights in themselves. Be ready to get lost – you will stumble across a multitude of squares and churches that are all the more beautiful in the surprise of discovering them.
3. Visit the Cathedral and Palace
Dead centre in the main square lies the famed Seville cathedral. It is huge and majestic, containing an eclectic mix of art and Christopher Columbus’ tomb amongst other wonders. Built mostly in the fifteenth century atop the twelfth-century Almohad mosque, the mosque’s minaret (the Giralda) still towers beside it. Climb the bell tower for stunning views of the river, the neighbouring palace and the cathedral’s Gaudi-esque roof. The Moorish fortified palace, adapted by later Christian kings, is an impressive building in itself, but explore the plush and peaceful gardens, which really steal the show.
4. Try Sangria and tapas
If you’re looking for tapas, just south of the cathedral is Casablanca – apparently a favourite of the King and Queen of Spain. Be brave and ask for a selection of the best traditional favourites. Seville’s streets come alive at night. Wander through the bustle and grab some sangria (there is a winter variety) from one of the bars tucked away in corners between tottering layered apartments.
5. Look out for festivals
Wandering around in January we came across celebrations for the three kings. This included music in the main square, and a parade of huge cars decorated as an assortment of ships, clouds, and fantastical shapes gliding through town with children throwing sweets from the roofs. Read up beforehand and explore at night, and you may find yourself caught up in similarly unexpected festivities.
6. Explore by bike
Seville’s equivalent of Boris bikes are available to rent and allow you to whiz round the more remote locations. The mammoth terracotta Plaza de Espana was built for the Ibero-American exposition in 1929. Intricate towers and balconies shield a tiled stream with small bridges leaping over it. Rent tiny wooden bucket-y boats and race around the square at sunset, when music starts playing out of the adjoining park as well.
7. Fit in a long stroll by the river
Lining the banks of the Guadalquivir are famed orange trees (don’t try them – they’re marmalade oranges and give a new meaning to the word ‘sour’), and an explosive wall of street art. Better than any indoor gallery, they’re packed with colour, references to a multitude of artists (including some brilliant Picasso imitations) and creative panache.
My musings on Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock (see the previous post!) reminded me of a recent visit to the newly, and splendidly, refurbished Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. While many will flock to the works of the Golden Age, the Rembrandts and Vermeers (and you should flock, but get there early!), I fell in love with the display of Medieval and Renaissance art, which takes up one half of the basement. Looking at just three (or maybe four) of the exhibits should help you map out the progress of Amsterdam’s history from its earliest formation to its role as a Spanish colony, an essential precursor to that burst of creativity that was the Golden Age.
The very first piece you encounter is a Romanesque relief commissioned by Petronella, Countess of Holland, for the Benedictine abbey-church at Egmond. She is shown as a donor figure on the right of the relief, whereas her son, Dirk VI, occupies the Position of Honour on the left – but then, she was only the Regent, her son, still in his minority, was the Count. The County of Holland, a state of the Holy Roman Empire, is first mentioned by name in 1101 but emerges from the County of Frisia (roughly equivalent to the contemporary Provinces of North Holland and Friesland). The first Count of Holland is generally considered to be Dirk I, who inherited lands from his father, or step father (it’s a long way back, and even history finds it hard to remember some things) Gerolf, Count of Frisia, in 896 – although as yet it was not called Holland. Gerolf himself had been given lands by the last of the Carolingian Emperors, Charles the Fat (the names are not always encouraging). Dirk was, like Gerolf, rewarded for good service by King Charles the Simple (see what I mean?) with a gift of the Church of Egmond, which he re-founded as an Abbey – and it was for this abbey that Petronella commissioned the stone tympanum.
Her husband had died in 1121 when their eldest son was only seven, and Petronella served as Regent until he reached his majority at the age of fifteen, some eight years later. However, that didn’t stop her – Dirk was apparently not ambitious, and was relatively weak: Petronella held onto the reins of power until her favourite son Floris was old enough to rule, although an initial burst of sibling rivalry ended with Dirk and Floris ruling side by side. Nevertheless, the period of the Regency helps us to date the relief – c. 1122-1133.
The House of Holland died out in 1299, and was taken over by the House of Avesnes, who ruled as Counts of Holland and Hainault (no, not the one on the Central Line) until they were succeeded by the Wittelsbachs in 1345. And then, after a war of succession at the beginning of the 15th Century, Holland was taken over by Phillip the Good (the names get better) in 1432, and Holland became part of Burgundy. Phillip was succeeded by Charles the Bold, and Charles by Mary the Rich (see what I mean?). Mary’s mother, Isabella of Bourbon died in 1465, twelve years before Mary inherited the titles, and just before she did inherit she commissioned what must have been a splendid tomb for her mother, surrounded by 24 pleurants or ’weepers’ cast in bronze. Today only ten survive, and are housed in the Rijksmuseum just round the corner from the Egmond Tympanum. Attributed to Renier von Thiene, they represent members of Isabella’s family as well as her ancestors: the fact that the latter were already dead may explain why they do not appear grief-stricken, and not even weeping, as their name might suggest. Their clothes, richly represented and intricately cast and chased, are rather old fashioned for the 1460s, possibly because they were inspired by figures on other, lost tombs.
Mary herself married Maximilian Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor. Their son, Phillip the Handsome (still looking good – indeed, in this case, looking particularly good) married Joanna the Mad (ah… not so good). Admittedly she didn’t go mad until his death in 1506, by which time she had inherited the Kingdom of Castile (and Leon) from her mother Isabella and went on to inherit Aragon from her father Ferdinand. Phillip and Joanna’s son Charles ruled with her as King of the newly united Spain from 1516, and became Holy Roman Emperor when his grandfather Maximilian died in 1519: this was Charles V, and his realm included Holland. The Rijskmuseum has several treasures relating to his reign, ranging from a rather wonderful tapestry to a number of knives and a fork. The complexity of his inheritance is expressed in his coat of arms, visible on all these objects – and these are relatively simple versions. The arms of Castile and Leon are the lions and castles at top left, for example, with Aragon top right. The double-headed eagle behind the coat of arms represents the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1556 Charles abdicated, handing the Holy Roman Empire his younger brother Ferdinand, and the Kingdom of Spain to his son, Phillip II. Unlike Charles, Phillip was entirely Spanish in upbringing, and had no real interest in his northern provinces. This signalled increasing unrest: more and more parts of Europe were adopting Protestantism and a wave of religiously inspired destruction swept though the Netherlands in 1566 – the Iconoclast Fury. One victim of this was the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon. The main body of the tomb has ended up in Antwerp Cathedral, whereas the pleurants were pulled off and disappeared, only to resurface in Amsterdam in 1691 where they were bought by the burgomasters, who thought they represented the Counts and Countesses of Holland (maybe Dirk VI and Petronella were thought to be among their number).
Two years after the Iconoclast Fury the Eighty Years War began, and in 1581 the Act of Abjuration officially deposed Phillip II. It was this struggle for independence, finally achieved with the Peace of Münster in 1648, which created the background for the famous art of the Golden Age. So when you get to the Rijksmuseum (I suggest 8.58am), and have spent some time on your own with the Vermeers (which you can, if you go straight there), then head back downstairs to the basement. Vermeer wouldn’t be possible without it.
One of the most exciting things about studying History of Art in Italy is that you don’t have to go to a national gallery to see a Titian, or to a pay an entrance fee to see a Michelangelo. Wandering around churches is as good a way as any to discover and experience incredible artworks.
A highlight for me when I did the Northern Italy trip in July 2012 was Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin‘ (1516-18) in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, in Venice. Once inside, the Basilica exudes calm and history beyond the bold edifice of brick, and the painting is spectacular – even more so because it’s in such a spiritual setting.
England is by no means short of interesting and beautiful places of worship, but Italianate churches are a different kind of impressive. Oddly, there are one or two dotted around England – including a stunning one in the middle of the Herefordshire countryside.
St Catherine’s church in Hoarwithy, Herefordshire, is an isolated treasure. Hoarwithy is a small village tucked away on the River Wye, and the church itself rests on a high hillside. Prebendary William Poole, Vicar of Hentland, decided to build it between 1870 and 1900, as he found the original style ‘an ugly brick building with no pretensions to any style of architecture’. Designed by architect John Pollard Seddon, it was built in the Italian Romanesque style, with a detached campanile. The brick exterior conjures a vague link to the Venetian Basilica, and the warm terracotta tone brings warmth to the English landscape that surrounds it. Inside there is a rich mosaic of Christ in Glory, installed by an Italian workman who had just worked on St Paul’s Cathedral. Much of the filigree and detail in the church is copied from Saint Vitale at Ravenna in Italy.
Similarly placed in the English countryside is the Italianate church in Wilton, Wiltshire. The Hon. Sidney Herbert begged his mother, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, to rebuild the ancient medieval church of St Nicholas, which had fallen into a severe state of disrepair. Accordingly, it was built in the Italianate style which he so loved, on a Roman basilica plan and complete with a campanile. Inside is the fantastic Capocci Shrine, with twisted black marble columns removed from a shrine at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
Finally, there’s St Peter’s Italian church, slid in between houses in Clerkenwell, London. Built at the request of St Vincent Pallotti, it was for the growing number of Italian immigrants in London (by 1850 nearly 2,000 had settled there). It was modelled by architect Sir John Miller-Bryson on the Basilica San Crisogono in Rome, and at the time of its opening, in 1863, was the only church in England in the Roman Basilican style. This year it celebrates its 150th anniversary which will be celebrated at their annual processione held in July.
All of these churches are stunning (as the picture-heavy nature of this post testifies). If this post needs a moral, it is this: go exploring. You never know what you will come across, and you might find a little bit of Italy where you never expected it.
With thanks to Wikipedia, Wiltshire Council, St Peter’s Italian Church and wyenot.com for photos
When you hear the word ‘architecture’, your mind probably conjures images of the shapes of buildings, their facades, interiors, materials and ornament. But hopefully it will also lead you to consider feelings, to think about light, scent, texture, comfort, space, and everything else that is architecture in addition to its aesthetic. This is the principle of the Royal Academy’s recently opened exhibition Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, and is one that everyone should be urged to consider.
The RA has devoted the grand spaces of its main galleries to architectural installations created by 7 architects. Those chosen to exhibit stretched to every corner of the globe, from Burkina Faso, Chile, China, Japan, Ireland and Portugal. It is refreshing to visit n exhibition turning away from the ‘big dogs’ that tend to dominate the British architecture scene. In a setting in which the art lover is so accustomed to just looking, you are now invited to touch, smell, spin, sit, wander, at any pace you choose, and absorb your surroundings.
This time, there is no designated route by which to visit each room. As I entered, however, it was hard to miss the enormous wooden structure designed by the Chilean couple Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen. Its bold geometry contrasts starkly with the classical interior of the gallery itself in an exciting and arresting way. A little investigation will lead you to the foot of four spiral staircases – choose any one and it will take you to a raised platform. Looking out from the top of this edifice offers a novel and interesting perspective on the space, highlighting the design and ornamentation of the gallery ceiling that you may have never noticed, or certainly will have never seen this close. The installation is enjoyable to explore, and for me its success lies not in creating a space for you to sense but a platform upon which to sense the exhibition space itself.
Next I found myself transported by the all-surrounding work of Chinese architect Li Xiaodong who creates walls of hazel twigs assembled in a fun but sometimes disorienting maze. The two installations designed by the Grafton Architects from Ireland also totally dominate and transform the spaces they are in, creating fantastic effects by playing with straight lined designs and the interception and transportation of light.
Scent constitutes an important part of place, experience and memory and this is addressed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. He has devised two dark rooms in which stand floor-lit lattices of thin bamboo sticks omitting scents that vividly recall his childhood. The final installation is enjoyable and the smell is certainly pleasant, however I found the exploration of scent and memory perhaps a little too obvious in this instance and found myself craving another layer of meaning. In these rooms the viewer must also walk around the sticks which are placed in the centre in an arrangement which confuses the idea of the exhibition a little – the construction operates less as a creation of architectural space and more as a sculpture or piece of installation art. Perhaps this was a deliberate intention to explore the line between architecture and sculpture.
The Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré has created a bright and fun tunnel made of honeycomb lattices, very enjoyable to wander through and with the addition of reclining chairs that allow you to stop and consider the space from a different perspective. Kéré, coming originally from a remote village in Burkina Faso, is interested in community and creating architecture that everyone can contribute to and feel part of. He emphasises this in the exhibition by leaving a box of bright coloured plastic straws and inviting visitors to interact with the installation by adding one or two to the lattice. The experience reminded me of contributing a twig or two to a forest stick house (to which any child of the countryside might be able to relate). Kéré’s ideas are engaging and thought-provoking but perhaps more could have been done to add to the visitor experience in this instance.
The exhibition concludes with a video that introduces the figures of the exhibition and runs through a series of their meditations on architecture with a backdrop of film of their work outside of Sensing Spaces (it is a great feature of the exhibition that the installations are accompanied by very basic labels and fantastically little supplementary information that could get in the way of your physical and personal exploration of the spaces) . The video provokes some interesting thoughts on the subject of our environment, as well as demonstrating that the architects featured are indeed exceptional, and have created some of the greatest and most interesting buildings of today.
Sensing Spaces is n innovative and exciting exhibition, though I have to say I was a little disappointed. I think I visited in the hope of being swept away into other dimensions but I was always conscious of being in the gallery. Perhaps this was in part the point of the show – to explore architecture within architecture. The most fantastic element for me was that each visitor is able to respond differently to the spaces; you can wander them alone and reflect on how your environment makes you feel, or use them as a platform for discussion with others. This exhibition explores something I have not encountered in a gallery before, and if it is encouraging people to think more broadly about architecture and experience then it is a great success.
After considering art’s relationship with religion versus secularism (and with Christmas fast approaching) I decided to take a closer look at Christian art in my surroundings. Perhaps my location was too biased for an average survey – in Cambridge, where 31 colleges each have their own chapel, Christianity’s influence on art and architecture seeps through the city.
Starting with my own college – Pembroke. Pembroke was the first college in Cambridge to have its own chapel. Tucked between two courts, placed next to the church-like library, with its imposing bell tower, the chapel carries its own, having been the first building of Christopher Wren – the impetus behind St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Built after the Civil War, it breathed vitality into the tired late Gothic architecture of seventeenth century England.
Pembroke is not alone in being built from pockets of Wren’s vision. The view that greets the visitor in Emmanuel College‘s first court is another Wren chapel framed by classical archways of a long gallery.
Perhaps the most famous chapel in Cambridge is King’s College. With a world-famous choir and towering façade abutting Cambridge’s Market Square, the chapel is an inescapable figure on the city’s skyline: it is impossible to take a mediocre photo of it. Its magnificence is undeniable; with a delicate, lace-like beauty which complements its solid, immovable stone foundations. The chapel was built in phases, by a succession of Kings of England, from 1446 to 1525 – a period which spanned the War of the Roses.
Stepping out of the sandstone structures that pervade the collegiate system, there are snippets of religious architecture from other periods. St Bene’t’s is one grey example, while the Round Church is a geometric exception.
With origins dating back to 1130 AD, the Round Church is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Plumped up at a busy junction, it is covered with visual idiosyncrasies. In building the church, the architects were influenced by the style of a notable church in Jerusalem built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century.
The Round Church, Cambridge, in the snow
The Round Church is beaten in age by St Bene’t’s Church – which is also the oldest building in Cambridge. Previously the chapel of Corpus Christi College, St Bene’t’s is now a mélange of Anglo-Saxon starkness and Victorian grey. The tower, built between 1000 AD and 1050 AD gives way to a beautifully monochrome interior, with deep chocolate wood and creamy plaster that belies pockets of light intricacy and stained glass.
Alain de Botton argues that by focusing so much on the beauty of their buildings, religion was recognising that as humans we inherently ‘suffer from a heightened sensitivity to what is around us, that we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon.’ Religious architecture can be admired by worshippers and atheists alike – that it holds a different meaning for each adds, rather than detracts, from its power.
With the influence of Christianity declining in Britain, I was struck by Alain de Botton‘s statement in his recent book, ‘Religion for Athiests‘: ‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’. De Botton explores the power Christianity previously exercised over civilian life; many aspects of which he mourns as a loss to society. He is looking to replace what positives Christianity could bring to society with an atheist version. But what would this mean for art and museums.
Masterpieces which command global admiration today were often designed for worship in the past. Though some of these remain in their original intended setting, such as Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, many have been plundered from religious buildings, now only viewable in a sterilised gallery environment.
Perhaps this sterility is the result of tension between secular and religious perceptions of art: Hegel defined art as ‘the sensuous presentation of ideas’; whereas De Botton argues Christianity ‘never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to remind us about what matters… whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of.’ Religious culture’s power to move might be shown by the author’s own experience – an ardent atheist, he admits to a crisis of faithlessness in his twenties, which he attributes to Bach’s cantatas and Bellini’s Madonnas.
Comparing the two, it would seem that Christian art understands that images are important primarily in generating compassion, enabling the boundaries between strangers to dissolve, and provoking a sense of fragility that leads us to understand new situations and morals. Modern museums – as fascinating as their avant garde enclosures are – can be too frigid, detailing the material facts and dry context of a piece, not its meaning or what we should learn from it. Catholic architecture, for example, made a point, ‘half touching, half alarming’ about how humans function: as a race we suffer from ‘a heightened sensitivity to what is around us… we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon’, a vulnerability to which Protestantism, and our secular celebrity-heavy society prefers to remain indifferent or blind.
Maybe this is what scares people away from modern art: is it presented in an inaccessible manner, too technical and seemingly unrelated to the average bystander to merit a segment of everyone’s time? Modern museums tend to groups works of art according to the period they were born from; de Botton argues ‘a more fertile indexing system would group together artworks from across genres and eras according to the concerns of our souls.’ Perhaps in one room we would be taught about love, in another fear might feature, and another might show suffering as an impetus for pathos. A compulsory dose of culture by way of a visit to a museum would then be transformed into a structured encounter with some of the concepts which are easiest for us to forget, and the most essential and life-enhancing to remember.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice might be an example. Tall and striking with its ruddy terracotta facade, it is proudly indifferent to the dusty indexing science of academic methodology. The Frari instead presents an eclectic range of works – including a fresco by Paolo Veneziano (c. 1339), Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with Saints’ (1488) and a large altarpiece by Titian (1516-1518) – designed to rebalance our souls, priorities and understanding. Sculpture, painting, and architecture are artfully thrown together from across regions and centuries to coordinate the impact of art on our sentiments; prioritising a coherent effect on our souls over a rigid grouping of origins and stylistic inclinations. Separating paintings by genre or period risks reducing any real coherence at an emotional level in museums. The art might not need to change, but museums maybe do.
Maybe all of this is because modern priorities have taught us as a society at large not to worry about leaving an impact on art for future generations. This ignores art’s ability to shape society, however. Though many would not like to admit it, art is infinitely indebted to religion: beliefs, a desire for status and aggregated money has fed demand for art during some of the most important aesthetic periods and can still teach us new ideas today. Auguste Compte believed capitalism aggravated people’s ‘competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them from their communities, their traditions and their sympathies with nature… Capitalism would in the end always favour a skilled, obedient and unintrospective workforce over an inquisitive and emotionally balanced one.’ Art and culture is not part of the ends towards which our modern economic society tries to force everyone to hurtle.
But art can offer society a guiding moral force – less dogmatic than religion, merely challenging and probing. Religious pictures in the past presented images it would be easier to turn away from, but standing witness to them directs us towards those who deserve our sympathy. ‘Crucifixion’ by Andrea Mantegna (1459) demonstrates this. De Botton argues that the ‘unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art.’ In the past, religious works were commissioned to show specific scenes or emotions to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. Levels of literacy may be very different now, but the power of the visual is not. Art should seek to give us a moral lesson; and perhaps museums and commissioners should focus on this, marrying painters with thinkers. To specify which topics art should focus on is not to insist that it all appears identical.
This is not an argument for religion: there are many ways it has irrevocably damaged nations, societies and cultures; and its decline may be inevitable, as it increasingly struggles to reconcile itself with our scientific age. It is instead an argument for perspective; the kind of outlook religion once advocated and offered. Religion, in some ways, promotes a sense of humility in the individual, a sense of there being something bigger, greater than us; and perhaps that is a good thing. Art can help spread that perspective; perhaps museums should work to facilitate this. There are few other institutions that can.
Following an impromptu decision, I decided to head to Morocco in late June. The trip was to be just as spontaneous as its impetus – travelling haphazardly through Marrakesh, onto the edge of the Sahara, and finally Fes.
Marrakesh assaults the senses. It remains one of those fantastic cities that is itself an exhibition. Snaking through the medina on foot exposes you to a strangely harmonious multitude of tensions and fusions. Life remains steeped in history but constantly developing – donkeys pull carts of a myriad of spices (supporting ancient culinary culture) past bright red Coca-Cola parasols in cafes full of people jabbering on mobiles.
The colours are vibrant to the point of chaos. Fruit, market stalls, adverts – bright primaries are mixed with metallic tones, making a mosaic out of the city that mirrors the intricate tiling of its ancient Islamic architecture. A highlight of Marrakesh is the Jardin Majorelle – home of Yves Saint Laurent. A serene oasis just outside of the medina, it chooses the brightest of Marrakesh colours and emphasises them in horticulture and architecture. Visiting the garden provides material evidence of the torrent of inspiration Marrakesh imparts.
The contrast between Moroccan cities and the desert could not be starker. Travelling through Morocco, the landscape offers itself as a gallery. Canyons, mountains and dunes offer colours, contours and contrasts as inspiring as the greatest painted masterpiece.
After arriving at Fes around 3am, taxi drivers promptly explained that no car can go in the medina. The maze of street feels, at night, like Venice without the water: ancient alleys, constant turns and signs pointing in opposite directions. In the morning, the ancient city – grittier than Marrakesh – is bathed with sunlight, and the compressed medina rooftops hint at the confusion below. The tanneries in Fes offer a glimpse of ancient, hard life – tubs of dyes are filled with people colouring leather, whilst canary yellow hides dry in the sun.
I didn’t visit galleries or intensely study art in Morocco, but it is a place that offers inspiration. It gives a greater understanding of landscape and colour, and adds a new dimension to admiring paintings and architecture. Take Yves Saint Laurent as an example – I did not analyse his prints or fashion, but viewing the source of his inspiration has made it infinitely easier to appreciate and relate to his work. Experiencing the raw source of inspiration for artists can open up a whole new world of understanding relating to their material work.
Four days does not do Morocco justice, but it is indubitably an experience. Nor does this post adequately describe all there is to see and do. Never having visited North Africa, I was hoping for a quick and intense shot of the culture. If there is one place to go for such a varied and concentrated experience, it is Morocco. My only sufficient advice can be: visit it. I can assure you, it will always leave you wanting more.
Sitting in the kitchen of my slightly dingy student house, I received an email asking me whether I’d like to blog about the World Architecture Festival. At the time my housemate was sitting next to me eating pasta with tomato sauce. An irrelevance you might think, but seeing a picture of the building that won, the Cooled Conservatories at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, I couldn’t help think that it bore a striking resemblance to the Conchiglie he was eating. Maybe this is indicative of what my parents have been saying for years, that I’ve always got food on the mind, or more likely that it’s designed to look like a shell, like the pasta. This would probably fit considering that it is built by the sea.
Another first impression to strike me was that buildings of this nature, with sweeping curves and copious amounts of glass, have been slightly overdone in the past decade or so. For instance, in my hometown of Newcastle (technically its in Gateshead), we have the Sage, a music centre, which opened nearly eight years ago, and for the life of me, I’m struggling to see any real progress in terms of aesthetics. Yes, it is aesthetically pleasing, but it just seems to be almost trying too hard. Call me old fashioned, but I like my buildings to have a few straight lines and a bit of stone in them. My other problem with this building is that it seems not to fit in with the landscape of its surroundings, but then again nothing seems to in the Singaporean landscape, everything just sort of looks like its been plonked down.
Whilst I may not particularly admire the aesthetic element of the Conservatories, I cannot help but be mightily impressed by the way in which they are constructed. Designed by London based firm Wilkinson Eyre, the shell of the building is extremely fragile and can apparently only support its own weight, whilst the external arches have been designed to increase the rigidity and wind resistance of the buildings, whilst also allowing as much light as possible to penetrate the building. The buildings are also called the Cooled Conservatories for a reason, they are cooled naturally, and without and air conditioning. How this is done is mighty impressive and I couldn’t even begin to explain it in such a short space of time, but suffice to say, it’s rather revolutionary. All very clever, but this project just seems to me to be a little forced.
Within the Conservatory complex itself, a very interesting point is raised. Both Conservatories contain Flora from environments that are likely to be greatly affected by climate change and global warming. The larger of the two buildings, the Flower Dome focuses on how cultivated plants in the Mediterranean region will suffer as temperatures rise, whilst the smaller ‘Cloud Forest’ looks at the impact on biodiversity of the warming of tropical forests, as well as methods of sustainable development which can be used to slow the impact of global warming. Whilst this is all well and good, it seems slightly strange to build this complex in the very near vicinity of a race track used by Formula One, one of the least environmentally friendly sports on the planet.
Although I may not be a fan of the design of the buildings in terms of looks, I think it’s hard to argue that the construction and internal cooling systems of the Conservatories are not impressive. This along with the fact that the Cooled Conservatories focus on just how important and damaging climate change could be to our planet, make them a worthy winner of the WAF’s World Building of the Year.
For more information about the Cooled Conservatories, and the other winners at this year’s World Architecture Festival, go to http://www.worldarchitecturefestival.com/
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